Hamilton versus Jefferson: Commentary, Part 11

In Chapter 9 further proofs are provided in defense of my thesis the ultimate cause of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson’s sundering was whether the national government had breached its Constitutional mandate of an autonomous federal government that was simultaneously in compliment to the various state governments while operating exclusively in international and intraunion affairs. As the sundering was Jefferson’s making, he argued that, indeed, the national government had overstepped its boundaries, and it was for Hamilton to defend otherwise. How, specifically, did Jefferson believe this mandate was breached?

In short, Jefferson suggested Hamilton and the Federalists were enacting plans for an unlimited national government that would render the states obsolete. One of the ways Jefferson offered as “proof” was the debt, and the alleged attempt to keep the nation in perpetual debt. “‘As the doctrine is that a public debt is a public blessing,’” Jefferson wrote, “‘so they think a perpetual one is a perpetual blessing, and therefore wish to make it so large as that we can never pay it off’” (p. 150). Putting aside for the moment that Hamilton and the Federalists possessed no desire whatsoever to perpetuate the national debt, even if such an allegation were true, why would it lead Jefferson to think that Hamilton was advancing an agenda whose outcome would lead to the ruin of the states?

Much as I’ve alluded to in earlier commentaries in this series, many people, both individuals within and outside the profession, perceive Hamilton and the Federalists to be mass concentrators of power. And it was no different in the Early Republic. This is what Thomas Jefferson and the Republicans believed. Among the impressions my previous commentaries should be conveying is one in which Hamilton and the Federalists are conservative and traditional in their worldview and concomitant expectations and goals, whereas Jefferson and the Republicans are surprisingly quite revolutionary and reactive when considered within the appropriate context. Because of this, Hamilton was not shy about articulating, for example, historically tried and true methods, such as a national bank, that would place him at odds with more progressive “republican” values. This conservatism made Hamilton and the Federalists unafraid to communicate aspects of British life, legality, and culture that should be emulated, while outright rejecting the entirety of the French Revolution due to its radicalism. To many, both in the Early Republic as well as today, this conservatism equates to “monarchists” and “elitists” or “oligarchs” while Jefferson and the Republicans, at least in their day, were supposed champions of “the people.”

Further justifying Jefferson’s stance (in his mind) were Hamilton’s Reports, on the national bank and on manufacturing. Each of these, in their own ways, undermined the autonomy of the states rather than complimenting them. Perhaps shockingly to perception of Jefferson, it wasn’t so much that Jefferson necessarily disagreed with Hamilton’s premise in his Report on Manufactures, for instance, but instead the means with which Hamilton proffered to fulfill his premise. In reference to Hamilton’s Report on Manufactures Holloway notes Jefferson “agreed, at least to some extent, with Hamilton’s overarching aim of encouraging American manufacturing” but vigorously disagreed with the bounty system (somewhat akin to the modern subsidy system) Hamilton espoused to encourage manufacturing (p. 153). The bounty system would, in effect, erode the principal of subsidiarity – in this context meaning, the states and local municipalities would be in the best position to determine which industries to encourage because they’re closest to them, while the bounty system would emasculate such state power. Thus, the federal government would no longer be complimentary to the states but usurpers (pp. 153-157).

Against such a backdrop, favoring debt at all would seem to indicate encroachment upon state authority, from Jefferson and Republican perspective because having debt assumes a need to facilitate payment of the debt (unless one is Thomas Jefferson – then one merely purchases indefinitely on credit and shackles his heirs with staggering financial circumstances), which is one of Hamilton’s chief aims in his Reports.

Yet, there remains one problem with my thesis I have not reconciled; namely, the theory of nullification. I mentioned this in my seventh commentary: Jefferson by the early 1790s appears to have repudiated the late 1780s version of himself. If he truly desired an autonomous federal government, complimentary to the states (the late 1780s Jefferson), and the break between he and Hamilton was Jefferson’s belief Hamilton was the head of an agenda that would contravene this Constitutional mandate, it’s unclear precisely how Jefferson’s theory of nullification and the coming Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions fit in. “The view that the Constitution was an agreement among the states, which therefore had a right to judge whether the federal government had overstepped its constitutional limitations” doesn’t seem to jive at all with any of this (157).


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